“Do not reveal.”
It’s the first rule of searching: Belaruth knows this. The father of seven daughters and godfather to three girls whose fathers passed, he has Searched nine times before, always with no incident. Each Search, however, has made him more annoyed with the clumsy, wasteful Humes; each successfully completed Search has seen him joyous to winkle back home.
So he knows. But when the she-ling Hume comes crashing through the woods, sniveling and snuffling, kicking over his painstakingly erected dye vats and mashing the metal shavings he has so carefully separated from the paper backings–ruining, in fact, a full day’s preparation—he can’t help it.
He bellows in rage.
He hears work stop in the camp behind him; he hears the scampering approach of his youngest daughter’s tiny feet.
“What is it, Father–oh, dear!” says Dagney. “Oh, the poor wee thing!”
“WEE!” roars Belaruth. “She’s a hundred times you!”
The she-ling has fwomped herself onto the nicely decaying log that supplies endless fuel for their conservative fires. She stopped her sniveling mid-sob when he bellowed, and her eyes, huge and pale behind outlandish spectacles, found him immediately. There can be no dashing away, no pretending they are not here.
Belaruth gestures lightly to the rest of the team–stay back. Humes are unpredictable, although it’s true they’re usually more afraid than frightening.
But Dagney steps boldly forward, and he groans.
“What’s your name, little she-ling?” It’s a ludicrous titling from his tiny, lithe daughter, whose head wouldn’t reach this great lump’s ankle bone.
The Hume child stares with her mouth open, her nose dripping, for a long moment. Tears quiver on her cheeks, but she is so startled to see the Searchers in what, Belaruth knows, she thinks of as ‘her’ woods, that she has forgotten to bawl.
Finally she gathers her wits together. He sees her swallow, reach down her hands to bolster herself on the log, and choke out, “Patricia. But they call me Pat.”
“And why,” begins his daughter–“Dagney!” he warns, but she quells him with a look,–“why are you so troubled?”
The tears tremble again on her magnified eyelids. “This BOY,” she snuffles, “Mark, in my class, made up a poem about me. He said it and everyone laughed and laughed.”
“A poem?” says Dagney, puzzled. “Would that not mean he is wooing you?”
“WOOING me!” wails Pat. “He’s MOCKING me! His poem goes like a Dr. Seuss book,” and she bites out, mockingly:
This is Pat.
Pat is fat.
She has a cat.
The cat is fat, just like Pat.”
Belaruth turns his head to cough–a cough that starts out as an unbidden laugh. He does not know this Dr. Seuss Hume, but–it IS a catchy little chantie.
Pat glares at him. “By the end of the day,” she says, “everyone was saying it. They said it in school and they said it on the bus. I was so embarrassed. I never want to go back to school again.” She sticks out her lip, pouting, and Belaruth thinks again that the Humes are unfortunately unattractive.
This one, though, he acknowledges, is somehow endearing. Needily so. He turns to Dagney and signals her with his eyes–I’ll take care of this, he is saying,—and she slips back to the women who halted in the midst of gathering materials.
He takes a deep breath–he knows, he KNOWS!– he shouldn’t be doing this, and he walks toward the she-ling.
“In my land,” he says to Pat, “this would be the opening salvo in a contest of rhymes. Tell me about this Mark child.”
By the time Pat lumbers off thirty minutes later, they are fast friends. She has learned about them–that they are from what Belaruth described as a world under. They have come on a Search for Dagney’s trousseau, to gather metals and cloth and plastic and wood–to gather things left behind from the wastefulness of the Humes. The team of craftspeople who have accompanied them will perform what comes to almost alchemy or magic; they will weave the waste into things of beauty with which Dagney will start her new life with Jegg, her intended. They will create a wedding gown that will make all who come to wish Dagney and Jegg well gasp in wonder.
Pat’s eyes soften thoughtfully as she listens, and she asks questions about their processes, and she looks around and notices the litter on the woods floor. She has the grace to look sheepish and ashamed.
Belaruth asks her about this Mark who torments her, and he learns that Mark is one of the two smartest children in the class; Pat is the other. And Mark is very competitive. He has bright red hair and a face full of those odd freckle spots some Humes are plagued with. It won’t be, thinks Belaruth, difficult to compose a catchy lay that will irritate the boy in his turn.
They begin to compose together; Pat pulls a piece of crumpled paper from her pocket, along with a broken pencil. By the time she lumbers off, she has written down this chantie about her blazing-haired nemesis:
Combing his hair
He set his comb on fire!
What’s he gonna do now?
Shouldn’t use a plastic comb!
Use one made of wire!
They have even added a refrain, which can be sung:
Markus Karkus, put it out!
Your brain’s already burned!
It doesn’t matter anyhow
There’s nothing you have learned!
Humes, thinks Belaruth, shaking his head, listening to the pounding of Pat’s feet grow further and further away. They’re exhausting. He turns back to his work area, where he will erect again the dye vats and begin extracting brilliant colors from the paper debris left behind by the careless species.
Dagney is a hard-working, beautiful daughter; she leads her team of crafters and artists with care and a light hand, and they begin to stockpile wonders. There is a set of carrying bags made from pounded plastic; the bags are soft and supple and a beautiful pale blue. They have separated sheets of thin aluminum from paper backing; Belaruth tells them a substance called ‘Wrigley’s’ is wrapped in these sheets. None of them understands just what a ‘Wrigley’s’ is or how the Humes employ it….although the discarded papers smell wonderfully minty.
The metal sheets will be shredded and spun and woven into soft cloth that will wrap around Dagney’s wedding gown. They have found three large squares of cloth to choose from for the gown–Dagney is debating whether she prefers a plain soft blue or a flower-sprigged blue cotton. Crafters are sewing and crafters are pounding; some knit; some boil dyes; and some plunge their arms into giant pots of hot soapy water, cleansing and rinsing all manner of carelessly discarded treasure.
The Search goes very well; Belaruth couldn’t be more pleased.
He isn’t even too annoyed when Pat comes clomping back; of course they heard her coming when she was yards away–her gasping breath, her pounding steps.
She comes to tell him the poem has worked. She made copies of the refrain, enlisted the girls in the class, and soon everyone was singing about Markus’s burned brain cells.
To her surprise, though, she tells Belaruth, Mark was a very good sport. He laughs and makes up a response poem on the spot:
Pat’s so smart!
She sent a dart
Right through my heart!
And Pat, feeling greatly daring, had quipped right back:
Please don’t make
a rhyme with ‘fart’!!!!
Belaruth laughs with her. And when she asks about their work, he goes to see if Dagney would mind if he shows her some of the creations. They drag out the carrying bags, the silver over-cloth, the soft-as-clouds blankets knit from finely spun plastic fibers. With care unexpected in such a clumsy creature, she touches and studies the crafters’ work.
Belaruth waits for her to react, but Pat is quiet, very quiet, for a long time.
“I could do this,” she says finally. “I could learn to use the things we throw away.”
Belaruth almost feels tears well up–although of course that doesn’t happen. “Dear child,” he says. “If only all Humes came to realize that.”
While the Searchers work, Pat cleans the little clearing. She piles up scraps of paper, pop cans, plastic bottles. The crew, grateful for the time saved, eagerly gathers up her finds and starts the process of morphing them.
She treks out to meet them every day for the next two weeks, and she marvels at the wondrous creations the team produces. Their final project is the gown; when it is done, Dagney models it for her. She has chosen the flower sprigged print. The dress sweeps and sways; Dagney’s jet-black hair glows against the blue flowers and the silvery mesh over-skirt and vest.
Pat says it is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. And Belaruth, who has grown truly fond of the great clumpy child, tells her, softly, that the completion of the gown signals the completion of the search.
Pat, who really is very bright, knows this.
“I’m going to make a little park here, in honor of meeting you,” she tells Belaruth, and he feels a little pang. He does not regret breaking Rule One; he will miss this Hume child.
“Remember, though,” he says gently, “don’t tell anyone about this time.”
“Belaruth!” says Pat, and there is a pretty ripple in her voice, “who’d BELIEVE me?” They look at each other, and they both begin to laugh.
When Pat leaves a little later, they know it is their final parting. That night the Searchers pack up; in the morning, by the first light, they winkle away.
Perhaps the meeting with the Hume child has addled his brain, thinks Belaruth. When he and Dagney take the goods the team has crafted to the storerooms, when they inventory the wonderfully crafted trousseau, they discover they have left all the soft blue carry bags behind. This has never happened before; Belaruth is chagrined. His daughter loves those bags.
For the first time ever, he will have to winkle back to a Search site.
It is almost a week later when he has the time to return. He goes in the early morning, when the dew is still clinging to the grass. He finds that Pat has begun her work. She has cut the grass in the clearing; there are rough benches made from three small logs she has dragged over. There are scuff marks from more feet than Pat’s.
Maybe, he thinks, maybe she has brought Mark here and some of the other friends from school. And maybe they looked at the waste and the litter on their pathway in, and they began to dream of ways to end that scourge.
He thinks it may be true. In the center of the clearing there’s a creation. It’s made from cans and a bucket, from containers and sticks. All these things have been dipped in concrete and stacked together. It is a statue,–and Belaruth feels a tightening in his throat,–that looks remarkably like him. Against the tin-can feet leans a little card, and the card reads, “In memory of a friend who taught me so much.” Neatly piled next to the card are the soft blue bags.
Maybe, thinks Belaruth, maybe Humes aren’t totally annoying, after all. Maybe there’s hope. He imagines a time when Searches have to change because litter and waste have disappeared. Maybe, he thinks, they could partner with Humes then.
He carries the lovely luggage to a spot where he can stop long enough to plant the memory of the whole statue firmly in his mind. He will tell Dagney; it will make her smile. He gathers the well-loved bags in his arms, and he winkles them away.